When Tom Benson stepped in to buy the rudderless New Orleans Hornets from the NBA in the spring of 2012, he had no idea the basketball gods would favor his new franchise with the number one overall pick. Despite having just a 13.7% (fourth best) chance to win the lottery, the then Hornets secured what would become Anthony Davis, perhaps the best dual impact big man to enter the league in years.
After starting out with a traditional rebuild, New Orleans attempted to speed up the process last season and in doing so, ended up treading water and putting their future on an uncertain course.
With a new franchise anchor to build around in July of 2012, Dell Demps went to work on rebuilding the team. Demps elected to match the massive 4 year, $58 million offer sheet to the oft-injured Eric Gordon from the Suns. New Orleans then sent veterans Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza to the Wizards in exchange for the massive expiring contract of Rashard Lewis, who was later bought out. Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick also ended up in New Orleans after a three team trade with Phoenix and Minnesota.
After New Orleans matched his offer sheet, Gordon admitted to lingering knee problems which eventually cost him half the 2012-2013 season. However, the deal made sense long-term; Gordon was just 23 years old and had become a 20 point-per-game scorer. His injury, while personally unfortunate, resulted in the Pelicans finishing dead last in the Western conference, giving them a chance at a high draft selection for the second straight season.
In the June 2013 draft, the newly-dubbed Pelicans saw Nerlens Noel (coming off ACL surgery) slide to them at the 6th overall slot. For ten glorious minutes, the possibility of Davis and Noel blocking the Western Conference for a decade played out in our hearts and minds. But, instead of staying the course during a slow rebuild, Demps then flipped Noel and a future first round pick for Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday and a future second round pick (Pierre Jackson, in 2014) in an attempt to shore up their roster immediately. The Pelicans continued full speed ahead into free agency, acquiring Tyreke Evans as part of a three team deal that sent Robin Lopez to the Trailblazers. Despite an interesting core, the injury bug bit the Pelicans and they finished 12th in the brutal Western conference.
This off-season the Pelicans sent their first round pick to Philadelphia, finishing the Jrue Holiday trade. Demps then sent Alonzo Gee, Scotty Hopson, and a protected 2015 first round pick to Houston in exchange for Omer Asik and Omri Casspri.
What exactly are the Pelicans rushing for? Davis, who is quickly evolving into one of the most terrifying players in the league, is just 21 years old. Trading for competency in Holiday and overpaying for mediocrity and inconsistency in Evans makes little sense in the long run. Losing Lopez for nothing only to trade for one year of Asik at the cost of a future first rounder will prove painful moving forward, even if Asik provides more defense and rebounding than Lopez might have. The Pelicans are also locked in to paying Holiday, Evans and Gordon a combined $36.5 million this season and $37.3 million in 2015-2016. They have to make decisions soon on both Ryan Anderson and Asik as well, and this is before they attempt to lock up Anthony Davis with an extension in the summer of 2015.
In a brutal Western conference, it’s questionable whether a rotation featuring Davis, Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Asik, and Ryan Anderson moves the needle at all. Despite the Asik trade, it’s possible the Pelicans remain the worst team in their own division. The Spurs are the defending NBA Champions,the Rockets have the league’s best center and shooting guard, the Mavericks have retooled their weaknesses, and the Grizzlies remain one of the league’s most physically dominant teams.
The situation in New Orleans is particularly interesting as we watch the Timberwolves currently play out a years-long botched rebuilding process. Team building is a challenging process that needs both patience and luck. Outside of the growth of Anthony Davis, the Pelicans don’t have near enough potential and far too much uncertainty. In an effort to rush through the rebuilding process, it seems quite possible all the Pelicans have done is stub their toes. By now, the Pelicans may be locked into a particular course and how that plays out with one of the league’s evolving superstars is worth keeping a close eye on.